Tens of thousands of protestors braved a sharp spring wind to hear the country's major opposition leaders call for Saakashvili to "acknowledge the will of the people" and step down. The protest, situated in front of parliament on the city's main Rustaveli Avenue, lasted several hours and stretched over a city block.
"This is now the demonstration of the people's will and they want to see change," Irakli Alasania, leader of the moderate Alliance for Georgia coalition, told EurasiaNet after making an emotional speech to the crowd. "I believe after our address to the president . . . we will wait for the reaction. If the reaction will be adequate, of course, we would like to see things move out of this crisis so we can negotiate a solution."
According to Alasania, Saakashvili has until 3 pm on April 10 to respond to the opposition's demand or face continued protests. The former UN ambassador defined an "adequate" reaction as "acknowledgement" that the people demand the president's resignation.
There was no immediate reaction from the government. Deputy Interior Minister Eka Zguladze stated that the government has already "initiated" dialogue with the opposition. There "will be more developments" in that direction, she told journalists.
Other opposition leaders, however, expressed no uncertainty about how events will unfold. Former Parliamentary Speaker Nino Burjanadze told EurasiaNet in the early afternoon on April 9 that the opposition has "no illusions" that their goals will be met in "an hour."
The English-language version of the demands distributed to journalists by Alasania's coalition condemns Saakashvili and his government for "terror and violence, menace and harassment, reckless and injustice . . . election fraud, [and] repression of freedom of expression."
According to Salome Zourabichvili, a former minister of foreign affairs in the Saakashvili administration, "the people" themselves will decide how long protesters should stay on the streets to secure the president's resignation.
"I am not managing anything; it is the people who will decide how long they will stay," she told EurasiaNet. "There is no today, tomorrow, the day after tomorrow. There is as long as Saakashvili does not understand what is the will of the people, and doesn't answer to the will of the people."
The opposition claims there were "hundreds of thousands" of protesters at the rally; the government maintains there were between 20,000-25,000 people present. The mood at the protest and throughout Tbilisi remained calm, almost somnolent. April 9 is a public holiday to commemorate a brutal 1989 Soviet crackdown against protestors that led to the deaths of 20 people. [For details, see the Eurasia Insight archive].
There were conflicting reports on whether or not people from outside of Tbilisi could travel to the capital for the rally. While the government and European observers maintain that there were no obstacles on roads to the capital, one mini-bus manager told EurasiaNet that drivers were obstructed from driving toward Tbilisi on the country's only East-West highway.
In April 8 remarks to EurasiaNet, Deputy Interior Minister Zguladze had termed earlier such allegations "a blunt lie," and stressed that police "will not be hampering traffic in any way."
On the morning of April 9, government members and the president himself repeated that message of maintaining tolerance.
With Patriarch Ilia II officiating, Saakashvili, his wife, Sandra Roelofs, Parliamentary Speaker Davit Bakradze, Minister of Refugees and Accommodation Koba Subeliani and other senior governing National Movement members stood in front of parliament alongside opposition leaders Levan Gachechiladze and Eka Beselia at a commemoration to victims of the 1989 crackdown.
Later addressing television reporters, Saakashvili noted that, despite the differences between government and opposition, "we have one homeland" and that the two sides share the desire for "freedom and a united Georgia."
Less than two years after the government used force to break up a peaceful protest, both opposition figures and the government are eager to show the international community that they eschew violence. [For details, see the Eurasia Insight archive]. International observers were invited to watch events unfold from the Interior Ministry's "situation room" and the Public Defender's office planned to place 100 uniformed monitors around the protest area.
There were no arrests and no violent incidents reported during the first few hours of the April 9 protest, according to Zguladze.
The early-morning show of unity, though, was sharply at odds with the ridicule leveled at the president in some protest placards. One banner to the side of the speaker's podium declared, "Misha, don't make us eat a tie!" a reference to a widely ridiculed film clip of the Georgian president chewing on his tie before a television interview.
Another showed Saakashvili hunched over on the ground as Russian planes flew overhead, emblazoned with the question "Is Misha cool?" ("Misha magaria?"), a dig at the president's 2008 reelection campaign slogan.
Separating herself in protestors' minds from such lampoons of Saakashvili proved delicate at times for Burjanadze, once a close confidante. As whistles greeted her turn at the microphone, she apologized to the crowd for having waited to part ways with the Saakashvili government. "I ask you for forgiveness," she said.
Flanked by her teenage son and husband, Burjanadze led a crowd of a few hundred supporters who walked from Tbilisi State University to parliament. The former Rose Revolution leader, surrounded by a security detail that kept media at bay, stopped periodically to tell supporters to straighten their banners or to walk more slowly.
But which way the public will swing in this tug-of-war remains unknown. One young rally participant, Irma Khololidze, asserted that "Misha needs to go . . . he has destroyed everything."
But a middle-aged man took a more pragmatic approach: "We have electricity. We have gas," he said. "At this moment, compared with what we had in the past, Saakashvili is a normal president."
Molly Corso is a freelance reporter in Tbilisi. Temo Bardzimashvili is a freelance photographer in Tbilisi. EurasiaNets Caucasus News Editor Elizabeth Owen added reporting to this story.